Telling the World’s Stories from a Sustainable D.C. Home
NPR’s NoMa HQ
On a rainy Friday morning in April, a throng of visitors waited for their tour time inside the new National Public Radio headquarters at 1111 North Capitol St. A man in black skinny jeans wove through the crowd carrying a guitar case covered with stickers. In the entry, a massive LED media mosaic flashed large images while a ticker streamed the day’s top headlines in bright, bold letters.
Since 1973, NPR has been creating conversations. It’s a place where the stories of our day reach millions of radios across the nation, where curiosity and exploration come together. Reimagining a new home for this institution was no small feat. But today, the 440,000-square-foot LEED Gold landmark building has shown what can happen when a strong company mission teams up with a clear vision of sustainability.
In 2008, the Georgetown-based architecture firm Hickok Cole created the winning entry in a competition to design NPR’s new D.C. headquarters in the NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) neighborhood. Hickok Cole was inspired by the building’s history, which dates back to 1926, when it was a warehouse and workshop for the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company, and later, a storage facility for the Smithsonian. NPR’s new home is made up of three main elements: the entry block, the old four-story warehouse building and a new seven-story office block.
Mixing old with new was an important priority for the firm. The design incorporates many of the building’s existing features, including pre-cast concrete, which references the original cast-in-place concrete facade. In the building’s entry, visitors can see the original mushroom-cap columns alongside new, modern interpretations. The team put a great deal of effort into restoring and exposing elements of the past while implementing fresh, forward-thinking, sustainably-minded designs.
“NPR was very focused on being sustainable,” said Robert Holzbach, who led the design team at Hickok Cole. “So much of sustainability is not visible, but they wanted to be visibly green too,” he added.
Completed in spring 2013, the building earned LEED Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, and has a number of systems in place that helped it earn this accolade. One of the largest challenges faced in D.C. is storm-water collection. At NPR, the small plots of trees and plants that hug the edge of North Capitol Street are actually bio-retention ponds or rain gardens. Rainwater running off the streets is captured and steered into these ponds or gardens so it can percolate into the ground. The permeable paving along the main plaza also takes advantage of any excess rainwater.
Green roofs are another design feature that assist with this effort. The team at Hickok Cole sees great value in their implementation.
“We love green roofs,” said Bryan Chun, the firm’s project architect on the NPR building. “They decrease heat-island effect and add insulation to the roof. The biggest component is storm-water retention, so the sewer facility doesn’t have to treat it,” he added.
NPR has three green roofs that cover everything except for the very top portion of the building, where the mechanical elements are. Hydrated purely by rainfall, these roofs are home to an ever-changing show of natural vegetation, not to mention active honey beehives.
From the street, a cluster of satellite dishes can be seen from the roof. These satellites are what beam out NPR’s content to all of the United States. Because of their obvious, symbolic importance, they became an integral part of the design, a means for passersby to visibly witness what the NPR mission is all about.
One of Hickok Cole’s main goals was to incorporate NPR’s vision and ethos into the project whenever possible. Along the exterior of the large glass office block there are waves of blue fins, long rectangular sheets of glass with a color fill sandwiched between them. This glass, though decorative and aesthetically pleasing, is also a subtle notion of NPR’s vision, expressed abstractly. Since NPR is all about sound, these fins are a stylistic representation of the nature of sound waves.
Fostering a positive, bright workspace was a key priority for the organization’s leadership. They recognized that the more natural light available, the more productive the work environment. Having natural light was also the number-one wish of NPR’s radio hosts.
As a result, there is a tremendous amount of natural light that filters through the building’s large glass walls and into the open offices.
“It’s like a glassy jewel box inside this concrete shell,” said Holzbach.
Light cascades through all the office windows on the upper stories in addition to pouring through a clerestory into the two-story, 100,000-square-foot newsroom on floors three and four. This addition lifted the office block up above the existing roofline, so that light could infiltrate the central part of the building. Even the studio rooms make use of small slivered windows, bringing in light whenever possible without jeopardizing the quality of the sound.
In a symbolic sense, the prevalence of glass is a great metaphor for the transparency that NPR strives for in all their work. With glass, however, came many important design decisions related to energy efficiency. At NPR, “Low-E” glass windows (referring to their low-emissivity coating) are used, reducing radiant heat.
One of the most impressive LEED features is the facility’s solar-shades system, which operates off of a central computer that gauges the location of the sun while monitoring heat gain. The computer controls the shades, mechanically lowering and lifting them to maintain optimal brightness in each room.
Even the emergency staircase is light and inviting. One of the main themes of the new design was fostering a collaborative spirit. This effort can be seen in areas such as the large stairwell landings, the office island blocks, the 30-minute meeting rooms and the large outdoor terraces.
No technology was spared in the making of NPR’s new headquarters. “It’s a building that was built for radio,” said Marty Garrison, vice president of technology operations, distribution and broadcast engineering.
Inside the Studio 31 Control Room, where many of the shows take place, it is apparent how many small but significant technical issues are involved in building a studio of NPR’s caliber. For acoustic reasons, no wall is shaped the same; the control boards, glass thicknesses and soundproofing all have to be designed and prepared with unparalleled precision. Advanced, state-of-the-art technology can be seen throughout the complex, from the master control systems to NPR’s renowned microphones, network operations and data centers.
This spring marks NPR’s second anniversary in their new location. It’s evident that fostering a healthy, productive environment is a key priority. On the top floor, with views of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, light floods over the white office space. Next to the windows are spin machines for employees to use after work. There are outdoor terraces on the fourth floor for working and relaxing during off-hours.
Each floor has its own kitchenette with free Peet’s Coffee. Downstairs, there is a fitness center with a full-time trainer and a cafeteria that serves both hot dishes and a full salad bar.
In the world of sustainability, even small decisions can have a large impact. There are many LEED accreditations within NPR that might surprise, for instance, its limited customer parking, which encourages more eco-friendly means of getting to work. The facility is located close to pubic transportation and has a bike garage for employees. Additionally, the bathrooms have low-flow toilets, the cafeteria has recyclable packaging and all the cleaning products are biodegradable. No effort is too small.
NPR is a place that seeks to inspire thought, encourage learning and develop an understanding of the world at large. The new headquarters is a beacon of great design and strong, transparent storytelling. Thanks to the large team of designers, architects, engineers and consultants who worked diligently on this project, NPR is housed in a building that will carry public radio forward in a thoroughly modern and sustainable fashion in the years to come.